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How you react to stress is vital for your health

The fact that stress and negative emotions can raise the risk of heart disease is evident, but the reasons why this occurs are not explicitly known. One possible rationale that connects stress to heart disease is an impairment of the autonomic nervous system — an instance of an individual’s typically self-regulated nervous system being led astray.

Nancy L. Sin, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of biobehavioral health and in the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State, and colleagues desired to discover if everyday stress and heart rate variability are connected. Heart rate variability is the change in intervals between sequenced heartbeats, and a measure of autonomic regulation of the heart.

Depression and major stressful occurrences are indisputably dangerous for health, but less consideration has been taken to the health consequences of frustrations and hassles in everyday life. Before this study, not very many studies had explored the relationship between heart rate variability and everyday stressful occurrences.

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“Depression and major stressful occurrences are dangerous for health.”

The researchers examined information gathered from 909 participants, involving day-to-day phone interviews during eight consecutive days as well as the results from an electrocardiogram — a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of your heart. The participants were between the ages of 35 and 85 and were drawn from a national study. The study’s discoveries were reported online in Psychosomatic Medicine.

Throughout the day-to-day telephone interviews, participants were requested to describe the stressful occurrences they had encountered that day, ranking how stressful each occasion was by picking “not at all,” “not very,” “somewhat” or “very.”

Additionally, participants were questioned about their negative feelings that day, if they were feeling either angry, sad or nervous. Participants reported, on average, experiencing no less than one stressful event on 42 percent of the interview days, and these events were, in most cases, rated as “somewhat” stressful.

Sin and colleagues discovered that the individuals who reported numerous stressful occurrences in their daily lives were not automatically those who had lower heart rate variability. No matter how many or how few stressful occurrences participants faced, it was those who rated the occurrences as more stressful or who encountered an increase in negative emotions that had lower heart rate variability. What this means is that these people might have an increased risk for heart disease.